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An insecure system? Connected with VVPAT, EVM 'no more' standalone or rudimentary

By Rosamma Thomas* 

“VVPAT machine is totally opaque,” messaged one voter who voted in Kanniyakumari constituency on April 19, when polling began for the Lok Sabha elections. The Supreme Court has issued notice to the Election Commission, on a petition seeking the counting of all Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail slips cast in the 2024 elections, instead of only verifying five randomly selected Electronic Voting Machines in each assembly segment of a parliamentary constituency.
What if the petitioner wins this case and all VVPAT slips are indeed counted. Would that suffice to ensure that the voting process has been free and fair, and that the votes have been counted accurately?
What, one might ask, is the need for a black glass atop the machine through which the voter verifies whether the vote has been cast correctly? Why cannot that glass remain transparent, as was originally the case? Why cannot the light that glows within the machine stay on until the voter actually sees the slip marking his vote fall into the box?
If members of one family all arrive at the same time at the booth and cast their votes for an Opposition candidate, might the machine be engineered to retain one slip and show the same slip to all members of the family? In that case, all votes from that family could be counted as just one.
How can a voter be absolutely sure that the slip has indeed fallen into the box? Or that the slip that he or she has seen is not the same one that emerged when the voter who stood ahead in line cast a vote?
The revelation about Professor Rajat Moona, director of the Gandhinagar IIT, who besides being among the “inventors” of the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) machine, also serves on the technical expert committee of the Election Commission to assess the machines, should cause heightened anxiety to Indian voters. Prof Moona is the designer of the “pardah” on the EVM machine, the prismatic lens.
Serious conflict of interest exists, in being expected to assess what one has invented. News reports earlier showed that people meant to serve as independent directors of Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), which supplies EVM machines, were affiliated to the BJP.
In his article on The India Forum website in 2021, Kannan Gopinathan, who resigned from the Indian Administrative Service to be able to speak freely on politics, explained that the original Electronic Voting Machine was not quite the same creature that emerged after the introduction of the VVPAT system.
The earlier system was secured by the fact that the EVM was not talking to other devices, it was a standalone device -- it also had no way of connecting the candidate to the sequence in which his or her name appeared, preventing pre-programmed manipulation.
As Gopinathan explains:
“If the EVM cannot electronically know, either at the time of programming or at the time of activation, as to who is Candidate 1 and who is Candidate 2, it cannot intelligently transfer votes in favour of one from the other. It can blindly do so from 1 to 2, but that would serve no purpose as there is no way to know who Candidate 1 is and who Candidate 2 is until the candidate list has been finalized, published in Form7A and pasted on the BU (ballot unit)”.
EVMs were also randomly assigned to constituencies and then to polling stations -- a two-stage randomization that would make manipulation hard, given that it was hard to know which machine would be used where. Three-stage mock polls were held, where political party representatives could cast votes and verify results.
It was during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that VVPAT was used for the first time, and Gopinathan was part of the team of bureaucrats trained to oversee the elections. It occurred to him then that if the machine would print the slip showing which candidate received the vote, it could not be innocent of the information about which party was represented by which sequence number.
Gopinathan was told that staff of Bharat Electronics Limited or Electronics Corporation of India Limited -- the two public sector units manufacturing the EVMs -- would “upload the sequence, names of symbols of candidates to the VVPAT as part of the commissioning process”. It became clear that for this uploading process, VVPATs would have to be connected to an external device.
The diagram and explanation that Gopinathan offered in his article are worth recalling:
The Ballot Unit-VVPAT-Control Unit Design
“As currently implemented, the VVPAT sits right in between the BU and CU and is connected to both... This essentially means the vote flow is from the BU to the VVPAT and then from the VVPAT to the CU. The vote is now being cast in the CU by the VVPAT and not directly by the BU. Such a compromised design was possibly adopted to ensure the use of the existing BUs and CUs -- some kind of a jugaad. But this introduced a serious vulnerability into the integrity of the election process. 
"There is now a programmable device in between the voter casting a vote and the CU recording that vote, thus potentially introducing a vulnerability. A key principle of the election process is ‘Cast as intended, recorded as cast and counted as recorded'. Any vulnerability in the VVPAT is now a vulnerability in the entire electronic voting process. This design flaw, in my opinion, is serious enough that we should discard the current design for this reason alone.”
The former bureaucrat points out: 
“We also need to be aware of the fact that we have to connect each VVPAT to an external device for every constituency before every election, and this has to be done after the candidate sequence is finalized and the names of the candidates and the symbols are mapped to the BU buttons.”
Names and symbols will vary across constituencies, and so there is need for a programmable memory in the VVPAT. To activate the light and the printer unit, the system needs sophistication and is not a rudimentary device. The EVM, thus, is neither standalone nor rudimentary, and the safeguards that made for a secure system earlier no longer hold, with the introduction of VVPAT.
The laptops used by technical staff of the ECIL or BEL are not supervised by election officers, and even the technical staff may not be fully aware of all that has gone into the laptop or been transferred to the symbol loading unit (SLU) or VVPAT.
Gopinathan writes: 
“To put it in other words, there is no way the district election officials can know or verify what has been transferred between the VVPAT and SLU/Laptop. Once you provide physical access of the EVM to an external device, it does not matter whether there is armed security or there are CCTVs guarding the strong room for the rest of the time. The new process thus surrenders the erstwhile physical security argument.”
The voter can only passively verify the accuracy of the vote, and there is little recourse for someone dissatisfied. If a voter complains, a test vote may be generated – but if the printing occurs accurately during the test vote, the voter may be fined or penalized. The test vote too is rather restricted, as it only checks if the next vote too is similarly manipulated.
Given these concerns, there is the real possibility that even a full count of all VVPATs may not accurately reflect the will of the people of India. What then, could be the solution, given that the election process is currently ongoing?
Two suggestions: 1. Ensure that the glass on the VVPAT machine is transparent, and voters can clearly see the symbol on the printed slip; 2. ensure that the light stays on, so voters can actually see the printed slip fall into the box after the vote is cast, and be absolutely sure that they are not shown what the voter just ahead of them cast. If such measures are put in place, perhaps a full count of VVPATs will reveal what India’s voters truly VVPAT-- a change of government, or another term for Narendra Modi.
Judges hearing the matter in the SC said they could not issue a mandamus on the basis of a suspicion – eternal vigilance, the judges might remember, is the price of freedom. Distrust is of essence, when it comes to securing liberty. The judges refused to order that the source code of the EVMs be made public, citing security concerns.
In 1990, however, the Technical Expert Committee of the Election Commission had recommended that this code be released to the public. In the past 10 years, ever since Modi became PM, no reports of the TEC are available. It is also unclear how often this committee has met in that time.
---
*Freelance journalist 

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